The Future Economic Stability Depends on How Well Higher Education Can Adapt

The great pandemic of 2020 has unarguably changed the way we do business and function in our day to day lives. Routines have been disrupted, and nothing feels “normal.”

Higher education is no exception. After our governor issued a stay-at-home order, Colorado’s institutions quickly made the difficult decision to extend spring break; send students, faculty, and staff home; and transition all academic programs to remote and online learning and instruction—all within a matter of days. Students suddenly had to rely on the internet, technology, and hardware to connect to their professors, courses, and each other. As one professor put it: “We’re all online institutions now.” 

Faced with a crisis not seen in a century, our institutions responded. They provided resources and reassurance to the many students they serve—adapting as best as possible as quickly as possible. 

And with such uncertain times ahead, our colleges and universities are stepping up and preparing plans for recovery—remaining committed to the students, families, and people of Colorado. As we shift from short-term response to long-term recovery, investment in postsecondary pathways should be a primary focus for the sake of the future of our workforce and economy. Undoubtedly, higher education is a strategic component of our recovery as a state. 

As Colorado’s colleges and universities transitioned to remote learning and instruction, the Department of Higher Education rallied to do our part. 

We launched a campaign to assist institutions in meeting the needs of students without sufficient technology. We’re dedicated to ensuring that no students fall behind due to a lack of resources. Our No Lapse in Learning Campaign has successfully fulfilled requests by providing more than 600 students with laptops. Thanks to generous donors, we are able to support our students through this difficult time. In addition to our donors, our Colorado Commission on Higher Education reallocated Open Educational Resource (OER) conference funds, in the amount of $40,000, toward the No Lapse in Learning initiative to expand access to essential technologies for students in greater need due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI) just announced the release of $1.5 million to help COVID-19 displaced workers reengage in higher education to get a credential or degree over the next two years. These funds will be matched by local/regional communities to help focus on their specific needs. 

Our Department is also working closely with our institutions to respond to the pandemic by moving coursework to virtual learning, adapting new practices such as implementing pass/fail grading system, extending enrollment deadlines, and seeking to waive ACT/SAT scores for future admission decisions. We also recognize the immediate and critical need for mental health services and food pantries. Students expressed concerns about COVID-19 on health and academics. Together, we can address the basics to help put our students—our future—on their feet again.  

Colorado’s college and university communities are resilient. They are holding virtual commencements, adjusting summer schedules and making plans on how to return students safely back to campus in the fall. 

Colorado’s colleges and university communities also serve. They have been on the Coronavirus frontlines creating and donating personal protective equipment, conducting critical research, making hand sanitizer, creating low-cost ventilators and more. We also see countless examples of students, faculty and staff volunteers stepping up to do good in their communities in a variety of ways.  

The future of higher education is critical to Colorado’s future—and workforce development and community development go hand-in-hand. Our current students must be able to complete their educational journey to success—and more students must follow. Our department and institutions have made removing learning barriers a priority. While we adjust to the new normal, we must take action and move forward. 

Here in Colorado, we’re shifting with the times while ensuring the safety of our students, staff and colleagues so that all have an opportunity to not only survive but to thrive. Being able to adapt to the needs of our students and institutions, and how well we respond to the critical changes caused by COVID-19 will be instrumental. We shall continue to rise to this challenge. The future depends on higher education’s ability to prepare our fellow citizens to enter our workforce and rebuild our economy and communities as we create the new normal.